99 Problems

Published on December 9th, 2022 | by Hope Elizabeth


Subway Rats

I’ve been napping with my almost 2-year old, one breast still out of my bra cup from nursing him, at the ready. He says “Mow-pees” for “milk please.” But for now, “mow” gets tucked away when an alarm goes off on my phone; it’s time to pick up kids from school.

I take a moment to gaze at my son. Even with his head sweaty from lying so close to me, he is utterly angelic when he’s asleep. I scoot away from him, and he stirs.

I pull him to the edge of the bed, and his little belly pokes out from under his shirt. Luke is my fifth child, but I can’t get enough of his belly, his soft skin, his ticklish inner thighs, his little toes. While he stretches, I sneak on a new diaper, then slip on his leather-soled shoes with panda bear faces on them.

I check the diaper bag and add a book to read to him on the subway. Ergo carrier snapped on, Luke secured inside it with a fuzzy blanket tucked around him, and we’re off. The blanket is mainly so little old ladies don’t fuss at me: “Put the baby’s coat on!”, “He’s going to get pneumonia!”, or a pleading “Porqueeeeeeeeeee?” There are always people in this city ready to share their opinions and judgment; sometimes a little prevention is key.

            “Ready to go get your sibs?” I ask.

            “Yeth,” he says, and my heart melts.

We live in the South Bronx, school zone 7, and I travel by subway to pick up my four older children. In New York City, you can lottery in and get on wait lists to send your children to public schools in zones outside your immediate blocks. Before we moved here in 2015, my husband had to take over school-finding; I was coming too close to a panic attack every time I tried. He figured out the zones, found a progressive school we liked (in zone 4) not too far from where our first apartment would be (in zone 5), and called the principal. Miraculously, our oldest two kids acquired spots there, and our younger daughters received sibling priority when it was their turn. Even though we are now occupying our third apartment in four years of living here, 35 blocks and one bridge away from the school, we are not changing schools.

It’s a ten-minute walk to the 6 train, if you walk fast like I do, a three-stop ride on the train, and then a fifteen-minute walk from the subway stop to the school. I hate it, yes. It’s a pain in the ass, yes. But this is what you do.

These are the types of things that seem ridiculous to someone who lives elsewhere—that are ridiculous—but that are everyday for NYC.

At the top of the stairs that lead to the 6 train, I feel a moment of gratitude that I don’t have the stroller today.

When I do have the stroller, I stop at the top of the subway stairs, take Luke out of the stroller, curse my luck and my life; and holding Luke on my left hip, use my right hand to grip the stroller’s handle bar. I bump the contraption down each stair. Typically, there are no offers of help. If the stairs are empty, I think how unlucky I am that no one is coming up to help. If there are people passing by me, going down the stairs, eyes ahead, I think lowly of each one of them.

I wonder about this strange thing in human behavior that seems particularly strong in New York City: this eagerness to throw verbal judgment on others, but a reticence to offer assistance.

Replacing all that now is the fear that I will fall down the stairs with Luke attached to my body. I start my descent on the discolored, sticky, litter-strewn cement stairs. My right hand hovers over the handrail, not wanting to actually touch it all the way down its length, but wanting its help if I stumble. If I fall, I might crush his head. Or break several of my teeth. Or dislocate my shoulder. I imagine myself, with three broken teeth, crying in agony, telling my husband that this is the final straw and we have to leave New York City now.

But this is where his job is.

I don’t fall; I make it safely to the subway platform. Sitting on the wooden bench in the middle, I try not to think about how much has seeped into the grain over the years: spilled coffee, urine, vomit, sweat, Gatorade… bed bugs?

Photo by Niklas Herrmann on Unsplash

I stare out, looking for rats on the subway tracks. Their scaly, naked, pink tales make me think of burned flesh. But they still fascinate me. I like to watch them scurrying around the third rail, oblivious to any danger. How have subway rats figured out how to avoid electrocution? It amazes me. I admire their tenacity, little claws running over trash, stepping in liquids, looking for food, living in the dark, living and surviving.

Always surviving.

I’m a surviving rat! I suddenly think to myself.

I hear the subway coming through the tunnel and watch the minuscule bit of light in the darkness become the headlights of the train rushing in. Even at 2 pm, sometimes all the seats are taken, except that one seat that’s open, next to the guy who’s man-spreading. If all the seats are occupied, I wonder if anyone will be kind enough to offer a seat to the lady carrying a baby.

Sometimes, the kindness of a New Yorker catches me by surprise.

The train screeches to a halt, and the double doors part. Plenty of seats are open. I take a seat at the end of the car, the seats that feel like an enclave.

I bend my head down and kiss the top of Luke’s head.

“Do you want to get out?” I ask him. “I brought a book for us to read.”

I struggle to remove my coat with him still attached to my body and turn my arms to odd angles to unbuckle the back of the carrier. We read Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things that Go. It’s his favorite book right now. I half-love to read it to him, nostalgia rushing through me when we look for Goldbug on each page. I half-hate it because it’s a long book.

Luke, I think, right now, we are on a subway that goes. It goes to the big kids’ school, where we will pick up your siblings. It goes through the darkness and takes us to new places. It takes us to old, familiar places too. It moves us, and it moves the other people in the subway car with us. We all go through the same subway stations, running over subway rats who scurry out of the way of metal wheels, flirting with death and always winning. It takes us to where we need to be, to where we don’t want to be, and to where we didn’t know we needed to be.

We go and we move, and we survive.

I don’t say it to him, but I think it, and it’s a warming thought.

I open the book and read the first line into his ear: “Ma and Pa and Pickles and Penny Pig are going on a picnic.”

Feature photo by Keren Fedida on Unsplash

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About the Author

Hope Elizabeth was born in Texas but lived in rural Zimbabwe for 12 years with her family of origin. Back in the States, she received a B.A. in English education in 2002, taught public school in Texas for three years, then took a hiatus to raise a family. She has five children and has (mostly) been a stay-at-home mom since 2006. She and her family moved to New York City in 2015. Their current Manhattan home houses herself, her husband, her five children, a nine-year old rescue pit bull/lab, two Siberian cats, and two rescue guinea pigs. Hope is working on her MFA in creative writing at City College. She enjoys writing about motherhood, mental health, body image, and her childhood in Zimbabwe. Her favorite genre to read is memoir, and she also enjoys a good fiction novel. She loves listening to true crime podcasts and watching true crime documentaries. This is her first publication.

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